Universities, jobs, apples and oranges

Reports here and here (and, not surprisingly, in a dozen other newspapers) of a study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, with the headline claim that 59% of UK university graduates are in sub-graduate level jobs. This contrasts with Germany and the Netherlands, who have only a 10% rate. Now, what are we to make of this? Depending upon your political persuasion — and thus what newspaper you are likely to read — this means that the UK is producing too many graduates and should focus more on vocational training, especially given the debts accumulated by university students; OR it means that the UK economic recovery over the past few years has produced some low-pay low-skills jobs but very few jobs that demand university-level skills, a bad sign for the economy’s balance and its future.

More immediately important, however, is the confusion over the numbers. You see, the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey reveals that only 32% of graduates are in non-graduate employment — and this survey is only counting recent graduates and its measurement point is six months from graduation. That means the real number — where we give graduates a bit more time to get on their feet — is likely to be considerably lower.

That’s a big difference.

What? You don’t suppose all this fuss is about nothing more than a difference in the definition of ‘graduate level employment’, do you? Oh, yes I do — although no one is publishing their definitions or how the data is gathered (students, what have I always said about defining your terms!?).

The study by the Chartered Institute uses European data; the Destinations survey uses UK data. If there is a difference in definition, likely it can be traced to the differences in the conception of universities in the UK and on the mainland. Historically countries like Germany have had massive systems of vocational education, and have not experienced nearly as huge a broadening of university systems. By contrast, in the UK the university system is much larger than it was only a couple of decades ago. This increase is greater than the increase in students studying classics, theoretical physics or philosophy; instead, it has been achieved in great part because courses that tended to be mainly in the vocational sector, are now increasingly taught at universities: design subjects, for example. Journalism, nursing and education schools are now much bigger than they used to be. It would not be surprising, then, if the definition both of university level subject, and also graduate level job, were different between mainland Europe and the UK.

Throwing it away again – does the left ever learn?

“We didn’t lose – we threw it away! Four years after gifting power to Margaret Thatcher, that’s how I summed up the 1983 general election for Labour. What we in the Labour Party have to ensure is that we never throw it away again. And to do that we have to make certain that the Party never again comes under control of the left.” So begins John Golding’s Hammer of the Left (full publication details at the end).

John Golding was the MP for Newcastle under Lyme until 1986 when he became General Secretary of the Nation Communications Union. The book details how he took on the Militant Tendency and the rest of the hard left within the Labour party in the early 1980s. The book is visceral in it’s description of the left and gives an incredibly detailed insight into the internal politics and campaigning.

Do we learn nothing from history? Watching the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election you might think not. There seems to be a flat out refusal to not only ignore history but also to disbelieve the electorate. The electorate has told both the left and the right time after time that they are not interested in extreme positions, but too many activists just don’t want to listen. And if forced to choose given a choice between ideology and competence they will choose what they perceive as competence.

The Conservatives tested to destruction the idea that they needed to be a more right wing party losing a series of elections under William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and then Michael Howard. In the end it was only when David Cameron (who consistently polls to the left of his party) was elected leader did they begin to win again.

For the left the early 1980s demonstrated that leftist positions (anti Nato, anti EU, unilateral nuclear disarmament, renationalisation) were outright rejected by the public in the 1983 election manifesto, also known as the longest suicide note in history. All of these positions are now being espoused by Jeremy Corbyn again!

When do political polls matter?

It should have been obvious by now that there is a problem with polls, after all according to the polls Neil Kinnock won the 1992 general election remember! This is a very well known issue in academic research which is sometime known as stated versus observed preference or social desirability bias. My favourite example of this was a street survey asking people if they bought free range eggs, 25% of people said yes, after the results were published the supermarkets stated that just 2% of the eggs bought were free range. But political polls can be useful if you look back to see who WON and LOST after the event.

Blair won three elections (invested billions in schools and hospitals which the left seems to forget) from the centre ground. His polling figures were right in the middle of the political spectrum when asked by the public to rate different political leaders consistently through his entire tenure.Gordon Brown polled consistently to the left of Tony Blair and lost (a little simplistic as there is sometimes a swing but still true), Ed Milliband consistently polled much further left than Gordon Brown and lost even more seats. Jeremy Corbyn and his backers seem to have persuaded themselves of one of two options, either

1. Labour just weren’t left wing enough to be elected at the last election or

2. The electorate are stupid,

neither is a credible position that will get the party back  into power.

As an aside doesn’t Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters find it odd that both David Cameron and the Daily Telegraph want him to win? Or is it they have no interest in actually getting power to change things?


Existential threats in the UK are rising

1. Labour could be wiped out and destroyed by a Jeremy Corbyn led party in the next election. He has consistently taken anti EU positions and this will rapidly become a big issue, he will have no credibility if he suddenly changes sides which is unlikely anyway.

2. The SNP are still agitating to leave the UK.

3. The Euro referendum in 2017 will tear the Tory Party apart as nothing that David Cameron brings back from Brussels will satisfy a section of his party, how big a section is still to be seen.

We could well be in a position  of a Labour leader advocating leaving the EU with a split Tory party, cheered on by UKIP in 2017. Leaving the EU would be a disaster for the country.

Towards the end of his book Jon Golding reflects on the 1983 election “We went into the general election with an unelectable Leader, in a state of chaos with a manifesto that might have swept us to victory in cloud-cuckoo land, but which was held in contempt in the Britain of 1983. We thought that things could only get better, but they got worse” (pg 297)

There is a good chance that Labour supporters will only need to change the date in that paragraph if Jeremy Corbyn is elected leader of the Labour party.

Publication details

John Golding (edited by Paul Farrelly) 2003 Hammer of the Left: defeating Tony Benn, Eric Heffer and Militant in the battle for the Labour Party. Politico’s

ISBN 1842750798

His book  was completed posthumously by the current MP for the seat Paul Farrelly.

Engaging with key stakeholders – Ruth Smeeth MP

Here at Staffordshire University our focus is on applied research, many of us carry out research in the area with local organisations businesses and residents. Having strong links with Members of Parliament is important – academics can provide evidence and reports, MP’s can raise questions or topics they would like to see investigated.

Ruth Smeeth came into see some of the work and projects and to start our working relationship.

Ruth Smeeth with academics

From left to right

Jim Pugh – Acting Head of the School of Education interests includes primary teaching, access to education, also works extensively with international partners. Current research the impact of tuition fees on access to higher education.  @Jim_Pugh

Dr Chris Gidlow   – (Associate professor) – Primary care-based health and physical activity promotion, natural environments and health. Extensive experience of researching health in Stoke on Trent with key stakeholders.  @cgidlow_staffs 

Clair Hameed – Programme manager for Enterprise, all things enterprise. Clair has been extensively involved in start-up programmes including student start-ups @beinspiredsu 

Ruth Smeeth MP  www.ruthsmeeth.org.uk    @RuthSmeeth

Dr Katy Vigurs – the elected co-convenor for the British Educational Research Association’s Special Interest Group (SIG) on Social Justice and Education. Katy was also a key member of the BERA team that produced the Fair and equal education manifesto. Katy currently runs the post doctoral programmes in education. @drkatyvigurs

Jon Fairburn (Professor of Sustainable Development) – environmental justice, energy and sustainability, economic regeneration, tourism. Extensive experience of EU projects, has worked with many govt departments and the World Health Organisation  @BusinessStaffs

Geoff Pugh (Professor of Applied Economics) – education policy, international economics and macroeconomics. Current research agenda is focussed on small business development: in particular, on SME diversification and innovation. @BusinessStaffs

After a round table discussion of common interests  it was over to the Science Centre where Dr Roozbeh Naemi explains the new equipment being developed to help patients in the biomechanics lab @StaffsBiomechanics

Ruth Smeeth MP and Dr Roozbeh Naemi

Prof Nachi Chockalingham explains the process…

Ruth Smeeth and Nachi Chockalingham


Then it is time for Ruth to have a go…looking a little nervous ruthontreadpad


And the results are very good….



Onto the Geographic Information System laboratory with Dr Ruth Swetnam @drruthswetnam old maps of Tunstall digitised including former bottle banks and potteries

Ruth Smeth and Ruth Swetnam

Ruth Smeeth and Ruth Swetnam

So the end of our first big conversation together and plenty more to come hopefully.

University systems at a cross-roads

The person most likely to be the next President of the United States, Hillary Clinton, has made of higher education an election issue that it has rarely been before in the US. Her plan, costed at above £200 billion over the next ten years, seeks to control the spiraling costs of higher education and ensure that students can afford it with a minimum of debt. The plan may or may not be realistic for economic and political reasons, but it is a hugely important move in the American political landscape.

Meanwhile, in the UK, two announcements. First, from the Chancellor George Osborne, that maintenance grants for University students will be eliminated and replaced, like tuition was, with loans. The loans will have generous repayment and forgiveness terms, but nevertheless the burden of paying for higher education will now fall almost entirely on individual students (or their families). Second, from the man currently the front-runner for the leadership of Labour, Jeremy Corbyn, a proposal not only to reverse that decision but scrap tuition fees altogether. This, presumably, in the interests of social justice and in recognition of the vast contribution that Universities make to the UK, and not just by way of individuals and their job prospects.

As I noted in a recent post, it is difficult to imagine (in the real world, I mean) a more polarised set of visions of what higher education is, and who or what is it for.


Standardised testing and university admissions

The latest trend in HE admissions in the United States is to move away from standardised tests. George Washington University has just joined the well populated ranks of universities who feel that the tests may be doing more harm than good in expanding the range of their student bodies and allowing them to pursue their access agendas. Advocates of tests like the SAT or ACT in the United States have always argued that they can evidence a student’s intellectual abilities, regardless of that student’s background; critics have argued that such tests are more closely correlated to zip code, and to hot-housed test preparation, than to anything else. Wesleyan University has found that using school grades (as determined by individual schools and teachers) as a predictor of university success not only works well, but increases the intake of first generation and minority students.

Curious, then, that the UK should be so adamant that moving from course work to standardised national tests is the only way forward. I am thinking of the currently-being-introduced changes to GCSE and A level — although to be fair, these are subject exams rather than general aptitude tests. Curious, also, that in the US there are calls to expand the standardised testing that takes place after graduation from university.

What is university for?

There are two schools of thought, and never before have they been so polarised. The first school of thought is that a university education is all about economics, both for the individual (higher lifetime earning prospects) and the nation (gdp growth). The second school of thought is that such an education is about self-improvement, again both for the individual (becoming a skilled, critical, reflective member of the world community) and the nation (clear-thinking, responsible adult citizens). I have written about this polarisation before, e.g. here.

Probably most people beliefs are somewhere in the middle, or rather a combination. Yes, going to university is for self-improvement, but getting a good job ain’t a bad idea either. Or, yes university is my path to lucrative employment, and if I learn a few things about myself and the world along the way, that’s all good.

So, in the UK, the league tables of Universities have an uncomfortable job of trying to quantify both of these polarised positions simultaneously, in order to satisfy everyone. There are scores for student satisfaction, the quality of staff research, and class sizes (all of which are meant to be broadly correlated to the quality of the self-improvement experience), and there are job prospect ratings also. One of the reasons why these tables give such dramatically different results (a university ranked 50th on one might be 30 on another or 80 on the third) is the weight they give to these various opposite views.

In the United States, Money Magazine has admirably avoided this nettle. It has produced a ranking based entirely on economics, on return on investment. (Typically, you might notice, it is all about the economic benefits to the individual, since on this view of matters the wider benefits could only be achieved in that way). See the nearly ecstatic Washington Post discussion here. I say ‘admirably’ — what I mean is, this is a hard-headed way of denying any validity at all to the other way of thinking about the value of education.